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The Carla Bley Big Band: Looking for America

C. Michael Bailey By

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Carla Bley is the love child of Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, and Charles Ives. But still, that does not seem to tell the whole story. Born into a musical family, pre-war, on the West Coast, Bley naturally became a musician and spent a good deal of time in church to boot. The latter of these biographical facts are made apparent in at least one selection on each of her many recordings. Churchy and steeped in rural gospel and R&B, her inspirational music is like no other.

I suspect that it would suffice to say that no one, and I mean no one, can pen a chart like Carla Bley. Original composition or arrangement, her charts burst with freshness and identity. Bley has always favored low brass (and high and middle brass, for that matter), whose earthquake sounds and rumbled through all of her recordings. Her brass writing also adds to her keen sense of humor, never a novelty, and always creatively tasteful to the mix. All of this is in evidence on her new recording Looking for America.

Conceived while composing and recording her most recent outing, 4 X 4, Bley wanted to return to big band writing. She believed that the national anthem needed a bit of updating and thus a 21-minute suite on "The Star Spangled Banner" resulted. Needless to say, this alone makes Looking for America one of the most important recordings of the year. The suite is progressive and inventive. Bley folds into the familiar melody funk, gospel, blues, and imagines what the song would sound like if performed by Charles Mingus, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, and Joe Lovano altogether. As in all of her compositions, there is a large trombone presence and her regular trombone soloist Gary Valente is featured. Also featured are trumpeter Lew Soloff, tenor saxophonist Andy Sheppard, and alto saxophonist Wolfgang Puschnig, all seasoned Bley associates. Carla Bley knows well how to compose for them, just as Duke Ellington did for Ben Webster, Cootie Williams, and Johnny Hodges.

Bley frames this recording with the scaffolding of the idea of the mother country. The theme of motherhood arises in the opening "Grand Mother" and is carried throughout the disc with "Step Mother," "Your Mother," and "God Mother." All of the "Mother" pieces are short and reflective. "Los Cocineros" and "Tijuana Traffic" are suitably Latin flavored, the latter very much recalling a lazy Tijuana taxi ride.

"Old Macdonald Had a Farm" is updated in the same way as the national anthem, with a funky undercurrent upon which rests that low brass. This big band outing is superb in every way, as is typical of Bley’s recordings. Forget that mainstream stuff—Carla Bley is the real thing.


Track Listing: Grand Mother; The National Anthem; Step Mother; Fast Lane; Los Cocineros; Your Mother; Tijuana Traffic; God Mother; Old MacDonald Had A Farm.

Personnel: Carla Bley: composer, arranger, conductor, piano; Earl Gardner: trumpet; Lew Soloff: trumpet; Byron Stripling: trumpet; Giampaolo Casati,; trumpet; Lawrence Feldman: alto and soprano sax, flute; Wolfgang Puschnig: alto sax, flute; Andy Sheppard: tenor sax; Craig Handy: tenor sax; Gary Smulyan: baritone sax; Jim Pugh: trombone; Gary Valente: trombone; Dave Bargeron: trombone; David Taylor: bass trombone; Robert Routch: French horn (3, 5, 7); Karen Mantler; organ, glockenspiel; Steve Swallow: bass; Billy Drummond: drums; Don Alias: percussion; Danilo Zeni: siren (7).

Title: Looking for America | Year Released: 2003 | Record Label: Watt/ECM


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